FEMININE IMAGES FOR GOD: WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY?


by Dr. Margo G. Houts
Professor of Religion and Theology

I was twenty-two and just a year out of college when the issue of gender inclusive language for God first grabbed my attention, via a bumper sticker, no less: "Trust in God--She will provide." I can still recall my immediate sense that God was being diminished, even insulted, and I dismissed it as a feminist ploy. All my life, I had faithfully attended worship, Sunday School and Bible studies. Not once had I knowingly seen or heard any feminine language for God. God had always been to me "Father," "King," "Jesus," "Lord," and "He." I had always just assumed that God, like Jesus, bore masculine gender. I saw no reason to deviate from the exclusively masculine language that I had inherited since childhood, language that felt comfortable and natural to me.

Then in seminary, I made a shocking discovery: the Bible itself uses feminine language for God. No longer could I simply dismiss it as a radical feminist invention. Why, I began to wonder, do inspired authors use it, why did I not know about this before, and what difference will knowing it make? For the first time, I began to ponder what it was about my social location that made feminine language for God strike me as a diminishment rather than an enrichment. More questions pressed me: Does God have gender(s)? How does religious language work--do gendered words attribute gender to God? These and other inquiries have led me to try to incorporate the Bible’s own example of inclusivity in the way I think, talk to and speak about God.

Biblical inclusivity is increasingly finding its way into our churches. For example, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) incorporated the divine feminine into a 1990 confessional statement: "Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, God is faithful still." (The Book of Confessions, 10.3) This affirmation is eminently true to the biblical witness, for relationally, God is like a mother in Isaiah 49:15 and like a father in Luke 15:11-32.

We who seek to follow the biblical example must first know what that example is. Some of the texts which started me rethinking the way I conceptualize God follow.

A: Female images for God (drawn from women’s biological activity)
1. God as a Mother:
a. a woman in labor (Isa. 42:14) whose forceful breath is an image of divine power . God is threatening to come against Israel in power, a power likened to the forceful air expelled from the lungs of a woman who is in the final throes of labor. Calvin misunderstood Isaiah’s intent and construed this as an image of maternal tenderness!
b. a mother suckling her children (Num. 11:12)
c. a mother who does not forget the child she nurses (Isa. 49:14-15)
d. a mother who comforts her children (Isa. 66:12-13)
e. a mother who births and protects Israel (Isa. 46:3-4). In contrast to idol worshippers who carry their gods on cattle, God carries Israel in the womb. The message to the people is two-fold: it demonstrates God’s superiority over other gods, and reiterates the divine promise to support and redeem. In short, God’s maternal bond of compassion and maternal power to protect guarantee Israel’s salvation.
f. a mother who gave birth to the Israelites (Dt. 32:18) The biased translation of the Jerusalem Bible ("fathered you") obscures the feminine action of the verb, more accurately rendered "gave you birth":
JB: You forget the Rock who begot you, unmindful now of the God who fathered you.
NRSV: You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.
The Hebrew word in the first line can be translated as either "begot" (male activity) or "bore" (female activity); the context must provide the key. The word in the second line can only refer to female activity. Scholars have taken these two lines either as a male and a female image of God back-to-back, or they take both of them as female, due to the way this verse is located in the overall poetic structure of Deuteronomy 32.
g. a mother who calls, teaches, holds, heals and feeds her young (Hosea 11:1-4) This poem is in the first person, where in Hebrew there is no distinction between male and female forms; the speaker can be either male or female. The series of activities are those that a mother would be likely to do: "it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I was to them like those who lift infants [lit., suckling children] to their cheeks [OR: who ease the yoke on their jaws]; I bent down to them and fed them." (NRSV)
Given the context, it is possible that Hosea is indirectly presenting Yahweh as the mother over against the fertility goddess mother figure of the Canaanite religion that he is challenging. The images belong in pairs. Israel is presented as a wife in ch. 2 and as a son in ch. 11, that is, as female and male in tandem. It may be that Hosea is making the point that Yahweh alone is God by presenting Yahweh as the husband in ch. 2 and as the mother in ch. 11.
2. Other maternal references: Ps. 131:2; Job. 38:8, 29; Prov. 8:22-25; 1 Pet. 2:2-3, Acts 17:28.

B: Feminine images for God (drawn from women’s cultural activity).
1. God as a seamstress making clothes for Israel to wear (Neh. 9:21).
2. God as a midwife attending a birth (Ps. 22:9-10a, 71:6; Isa. 66:9) (midwife was a role only for women in ancient Israel).
3. God as a woman working leaven into bread (Lk. 13:18-21). This feminine image is equivalent to the image of God as masculine in the preceding parable of the mustard seed.
4. God as a woman seeking a lost coin (Lk. 15:8-10).This feminine image is equivalent to the image of God as masculine in the preceding parable of the shepherd seeking a lost sheep. Both Luke 13 and 15 contain paired masculine and feminine images for God, drawn from activities of Galilean peasants.

C: Additional examples of the divine feminine.
1. Female bird imagery. Yahweh is described by an analogy to the action of a female bird protecting her young (Ps. 17:8, 36:7, 57:1, 91:1, 4; Isa. 31:5; Dt. 32:11-12).
a. The eagle: Dt. 32:11-12: "As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings: so the Lord alone did lead Jacob ...." (KJV). The female eagle, both larger and stronger than the male, does the bulk of the incubation of the eggs as well as the hunting. She is the one who bears the eaglets on her wings when it is time for them to leave the nest. In a sudden movement, she swoops down to force them to fly alone, but always stays near enough to swoop back under them when they become too weary to fly on their own. It is a powerful image of God nurturing and supporting us when we are weak, yet always encouraging us to grow and mature. Cf. Ex. 19:4, "I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself," and Job 39:27-30.
b. The hen: Mt. 23:37 (par. Lk. 13:34; cf. Ruth 2:12): "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not." In his lament over Jerusalem, Jesus employs feminine imagery. Whereas the magnificent eagle is associated with light, sun, height, mobility and exteriority, the lowly hen is "associated with the shadows and darkness of the henhouse, and with depth and stillness and interiority beneath the mothering wings" (V. Mollenkott, The Divine Feminine [Crossroad, 1987], 93). Each image illuminates a different, important aspect of God’s relation to us.
2. God as Mother Bear (Hosea 13:8), a fierce image associated with the profound attachment of the mother to her cubs. God’s rage against those who withhold gratitude is that of a bear "robbed of her cubs."
3. Holy Spirit (in Hebrew, feminine; in Greek, neuter) is often associated with women’s functions: the birthing process (Jn. 3:5; cf. Jn. 1:13, 1 Jn. 4:7b, 5:1, 4, 18), consoling, comforting, an eschatological groaning in travail of childbirth, emotional warmth, and inspiration. Some ancient church traditions refer to the Holy Spirit in feminine terms (the Syriac church used the feminine pronoun for the Holy Spirit until ca. 400 C.E.; a 14th c. fresco depicting the Trinity at a church near Munich, Germany images the Holy Spirit as feminine).

As we seek to follow biblical inclusivity, let us also affirm the consistent witness of the church, namely, that God is neither feminine nor masculine (gender), neither male nor female (sex). God, who is transcendent Spirit, possesses no physical body, yet accommodates to human limitations by using physical, relational, gender-laden images for self-disclosure. Some of those are feminine. Inasmuch as God inspired the biblical authors to be inclusive, who are we not to be?